We told you so.
Last year at this time, we told you that the Dallas Cowboys were the most likely team in the NFL to go from a last-place division finish in 2015 to a first-place ranking in 2016, and that's exactly what happened. Of course, we said that would happen because Tony Romo would return to the field, not because Dak Prescott would have a rookie season for the ages. But hey, either way, the results are the same.
Dallas wasn't the only worst-to-first team in 2016. The Titans also pulled it off, though they missed out on a playoff berth due to tiebreakers with Houston. The Dolphins and Buccaneers also rebounded nicely, with Miami securing its first playoff berth since 2008 and Tampa Bay its first winning season since 2010. Meanwhile, the Chargers, Bears, Browns and 49ers each pulled off the "worst-to-worst" achievement, if you want to call it that, finishing in last place again.
This year, our top pick to go from worst-to-first is a team that flirted with a perfect season just two years ago: the Carolina Panthers, who will square off with last year's conference champs, the Atlanta Falcons, in a race that should come down to the wire.
We've gone through the eight teams that finished in last place in each division last season, ranked by their odds of making the postseason in 2017. These odds are based on the 2017 simulation that we ran for our new book "Football Outsiders Almanac 2017." The system predicts each team's DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, explained here) on offense, defense and special teams using a number of variables, including performance over the past three years, coaching experience and personnel changes. Then we simulate the season a million times to get a wide range of possibilities that account for every team's best-case and worst-case scenario.
1. Carolina Panthers
Odds of winning division: 35.1 percent (1st in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 46.4 percent (7th in NFL)
We actually give Carolina a very slight nod over Atlanta to win the NFC South this year. Let's not forget that the Panthers won this division three years in a row before collapsing last season. The Panthers and Falcons look almost perfectly even on paper, but the schedule gives the edge to Carolina. While the Falcons have to play the Cowboys and then travel to Seattle (in back-to-back weeks, no less), the Panthers get to play the 49ers and Eagles -- the latter at home on a Thursday night. The biggest games on either team's slate, though, come against each other -- the Panthers host the Falcons in Week 9, then travel to Atlanta in Week 17 for a game that will probably decide the division champion.
Schedule aside, this year's Panthers should be much more formidable than the 2016 version. Even if he falls short of his MVP numbers of 2015, Cam Newton is likely to rebound from the dreadful season he had last year. First-round pick Christian McCaffrey should offer a rushing/receiving threat the likes of which the Panthers have never seen. And perennially excellent tight end Greg Olsen should again be a reliable target in the passing game. Meanwhile, the Panthers are counting on veteran free agents -- defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Adams -- to turn around a defense that fell from second to 10th in DVOA last season.
The biggest question for Carolina isn't on the field, but in the front office. The midsummer firing of general manager Dave Gettleman caught everyone off guard (including, we assume, Gettleman). Former GM Marty Hurney has returned to guide the team on an interim basis, but it's impossible to say just what this team's long-term vision is. In the short term, though, we like Carolina's odds of getting back into the playoffs.
Odds of winning division: 24.2 percent (3rd in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 32.9 percent (20th in NFL)
There are three good reasons to believe the Jaguars can win their division for the first time since 1999, back when they played in the AFC Central. The first is the soft schedule, which is second easiest in the league based on our projections. The second is the defense, which could blossom into a top-10 unit. The third is the competition. This is still the AFC South, where the best team in our projections, Tennessee, finishes with an average of just 8.1 wins. The Jaguars don't need to be good to win the division. They just need to be less horrible than the Titans, Colts and Texans.
The Jaguars have potential young stars at every level of the defense, from Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler at pass-rusher, to Myles Jack at linebacker, to Jalen Ramsey at cornerback. The combination of Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, signed away from division rival Houston in free agency, could be the NFL's best cornerback tandem this season. Veteran Paul Posluszny remains at linebacker. Calais Campbell, one of the league's top inside/outside linemen, arrives from Arizona to make Jacksonville even stronger up front.
Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the draft, will help a ground attack that finished 28th in DVOA a season ago. The only thing holding the Jaguars back is the same thing that held them back last year: Blake Bortles. In three NFL seasons, the quarterback has never ranked higher than 24th in QBR. He was 28th last year, and the only two passers worse than him, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum, have each lost their starting jobs. Bortles will need to improve if he doesn't want to join them on the sidelines in 2018.
Odds of winning division: 21.8 percent (3rd in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 35.2 percent (14th in NFL)
This projection comes with a caveat: Our system sees all the injuries the Chargers suffered in San Diego last season and assumes they will have better health in Los Angeles this fall. But the Chargers are always injured. Since 2013, they have finished 28th, 31st, 26th and then 31st again in adjusted games lost, which counts not just games players missed but also gives partial "credit" for those who appear on the injury report. Already this year, the Chargers have learned that first-round wide receiver Mike Williams will be out until at least October with a back injury, while second-round guard Forrest Lamp is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Even without Williams, the Chargers still have plenty of weapons in the passing game. Few teams can match the quartet of wide receivers Los Angeles has in Keenan Allen (assuming he stays healthy for once), Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin. Fewer still can match the tight end pairing of Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry; running back Melvin Gordon had great success as a receiver last year, too.
On the other hand, the defense has questions all over the place. In particular, it must play better in the clutch; the Chargers were tied for the NFL lead with six blown fourth-quarter leads. Just cutting that in half would get the Chargers to 8-8, and put them within shouting distance of an Oakland team that is unlikely to match the seven fourth-quarter comeback wins it had a year ago.
Odds of winning division: 19.5 percent (3rd in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 33.4 percent (19th in NFL)
In all likelihood, the Eagles will be a better football team this fall than either the Jaguars or Chargers, two teams that outrank them in this piece. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Eagles play in the NFL's deepest division. The NFC East is the only division in which all four teams made the playoffs at least 30 percent of the time in our simulations. In fact, we're projecting the Eagles to have the NFL's most difficult schedule this fall. Not only must they run through the gauntlet of their own division, but they also play the Seahawks, Cardinals, Panthers, Raiders and Chiefs.
Against a schedule that daunting, it's quite possible that Carson Wentz's numbers will decline in his second season, even if his actual performance improves. The Eagles did all they could to help their young quarterback, signing running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery.
It's the defense, though, that gives Philadelphia its best chance to get back into the playoffs. The defensive line, led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, was third in pressure rate against opposing quarterbacks and second in adjusted line yards, a measurement of a front seven's ability to prevent consistent gains on run plays explained here. Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks were a pair of playmaking linebackers who helped the Eagles lead the league in DVOA on passes thrown to opposing tight ends. Malcolm Jenkins was third among safeties in defeats (any play that forces a loss of yards, a turnover or a third-/fourth-down stop). The cornerbacks remain a question mark, though, and that combined with uncertainty on offense will likely leave them short of the Cowboys and Giants.
Odds of winning division: 16.4 percent (3rd in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 27.6 percent (22nd in NFL)
Another year, another rebuild. Ever since head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace were hired in 2015, they've spent each offseason undergoing a massive roster churn. This year was no exception, as the Bears will have new starters at quarterback and wide receiver, not to mention an entirely rebuilt secondary. Only three teams have lost more games than Chicago the past two seasons. Is there reason to believe this year will be any different?
Better health would help, and the Bears almost can't help but be healthier in 2017. Our adjusted games lost records go back to 2002, and in those 15 years no team has suffered more injuries than last year's Bears. Chicago was tops in the league in injuries on defense, and second on offense. Only three Bears started 16 games last season. The reigning conference champs had five 16-game starters on the offensive line alone.
With that in mind, we're reasonably confident that Chicago will improve on its 3-13 mark from last season. We expect Mike Glennon and (more importantly) Jordan Howard to produce a respectable offense, while Leonard Floyd keys a resurgence on the defensive side of the ball. Still, it's hard to see the Bears making enough strides to overcome Detroit and especially Green Bay to make the playoff field.
Odds of winning division: 8.2 percent (4th in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 16.2 percent (30th in NFL)
We have now hit the "pipe dream" section of worst-to-first contenders. Is it possible that San Francisco will win the NFC West this season? Sure, if the Seahawks' entire roster is hospitalized with bird flu. Barring a major pandemic, though, Seattle's roster is better than San Francisco's across the board. So is Arizona's. Even the Rams have a lot more going for them this season. It's going to be a long, hard dig out of the cellar for San Francisco. This is why the newly hired combo of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were given six-year deals -- everyone involved knows that patience is needed.
The most likely path to an unlikely playoff berth this year would be if all the offensive pieces fell into place right away. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley both had better numbers in Chicago last season than either Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick did in San Francisco. At wide receiver, Aldrick Robinson should be a big improvement over anything the 49ers had in 2016, and fellow free-agent signing Pierre Garcon should be a lot better than Robinson. In the backfield, Carlos Hyde is a stud, and should look even better with Kyle Juszczyk opening holes for him. The wizard at the center of all this is Shanahan, last seen turning Atlanta's offense into the best in the league.
The defense has a lot more question marks, though first-round rookie Solomon Thomas and youngsters DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead should make for fine building blocks. The 49ers have a plan in place, but don't look for that plan to produce significant results for a few years yet.
Odds of winning division: 5.3 percent (4th in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 13.5 percent (32nd in NFL)
Like the 49ers, the Browns were very bad in 2016. And like the 49ers, they have a plan for long-term success. A series of trades (mostly with the Eagles and Texans) have left them with eight picks in the first four rounds of the 2018 draft. They have exciting young talent at running back, wide receiver and tight end. They have a defense chock full of potential studs, including top overall draft pick Myles Garrett and fellow first-rounder Jabrill Peppers. They also added veteran talent in the secondary and the offensive line to stabilize those two positions.
But for all that improvement, they still don't know who their quarterback will be this season, or if a franchise quarterback even exists on the roster. Cody Kessler was Cleveland's best quarterback last season, but he's a high-floor/low-ceiling guy who looks like a good backup more than anything else. Brock Osweiler, a disaster in Houston last year, is likely on his last chance to salvage his NFL career. DeShone Kizer, a second-round rookie, has more big-play ability, but his Notre Dame career was marked by inaccuracy and inconsistency. Odds are that the Browns will end up using one of those many draft picks on a quarterback next year.
Odds of winning division: 5.1 percent (4th in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 14.6 percent (31st in NFL)
Like the 49ers and Browns, the Jets were very bad in 2016. Unlike the 49ers and Browns, they have no idea what the hell they are doing. They signed a bad, old quarterback in Josh McCown, who has won all of 18 starts in 14 NFL seasons. At age 38, McCown has zero long-term upside, and his presence on the team will only block the evaluation and development of youngsters Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Brandon Marshall's departure and Quincy Enunwa's injury will leave McCown trying to complete passes to alleged wide receivers named Robby Anderson, Jalin Marshall and Charone Peake, which sounds ... challenging. We should point out that New York's 5.1 percent odds of winning the AFC East were calculated when we thought Enunwa would be the Jets' top target -- we haven't re-run them yet, but they would be even lower now.
The Jets have quite a few good players on defense, most notably the defensive line trio of Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. They should shut down opposing run games once again, which will mean a big contract for Richardson when he signs elsewhere after the season.
General manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles are good bets to be fired after the season, if not sooner, so the Jets lack the 49ers' stability at the top of the organization as well as the Browns' draft capital next season. And we haven't even mentioned that the Jets share a division with the reigning Super Bowl champions and the rulers of the NFL for the past decade and a half, the New England Patriots. Look for another examination of a last-place Jets team when we run this same piece in August of 2018.